Is social innovation simply dressed-up neoliberalism?

When governments embrace new ideas to suit their own needs, they can squeeze the innovation out of them. In the first of a three-part series Dr Andrew Curtis and Tara Anderson reflect on the motivations underlying the current global romance with the concept of social innovation. 

Across the Western world the concept of social innovation is taking off. Governments are encouraging it, intermediaries are funding it, business is delivering it and there are awards to celebrate it. But before we applaud this new interest and support, we need to ask two important questions – why the sudden spotlight upon it, and in whose interests is it working?

Everyone, it seems, likes social enterprise and social innovation. Many people are desperate to find new and innovative ways to solve the ever-increasing challenges our societies face. From academia to government to business, the conversation is exploding. And support for social innovation is increasingly available.

In the US, the White House has introduced a Social Innovation Fund that combines public and private resources to “grow promising community-based solutions that have evidence of results in any of three priority areas: economic opportunity, healthy futures, and youth development” .

In the UK Nesta and The Young Foundation are increasing their profile. Nesta has 51,200 followers on Twitter and The Young Foundation has 25,000. The Social Innovation Exchange, a venture of The Young Foundation, is the world’s primary network for social innovation. It “connects, inspires and supports individuals and organisations committed to promoting social innovation”.

Awards for social innovation are also popping up everywhere. The European Commission has launched The European Social Innovation Competition to “find the best social innovation solutions to help people move towards work or create new types of work”.

Is anyone starting to wonder what the sudden interest in social innovation is all about?

The Asia Social Innovation Award was created as “the first step to enhance creativity and stimulate the development of social entrepreneurship in Asia”. The Innovation Mindset Challenge organised by Columbia University, Leroy and Clarkson, The Rockefeller Foundation and the Young Foundation awards prizes for storytelling about how an individual has used an innovative mindset.

Social innovation awards are now even offered by the likes of the international Drone User Group, Teach for America, Dell, The SAB Foundation in South Africa, The Bank of Austria and Catholic Charities USA. The list goes on and on. 

But is anyone starting to wonder what the sudden interest in social innovation is all about? At first glance it all looks great – more support to solve the biggest challenges of our times. But is there a downside we’ve not yet considered in our excitement at the possibility of new funding and profiling?

Let’s rewind a few decades, when citizens of Western nations had access to a range of free public services delivered by the government that were funded by the money they paid through their taxes. These included university education, health care, care for older people and social services.

But since the economic approach of leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan, and more than ever following the global financial crisis, government funding for public services is being reduced and delivery of services is being privatised and outsourced. 

In the post-global financial crisis world, conservative governments in Britain and Australia, for example, are significantly reducing public spending, and proclaiming austerity the salvation from the ‘excesses’ of the pre-global financial crisis era. In this new world, they are increasingly looking to support social enterprise and social innovation to fill the gap they have created.

On the one hand, this could be seen by the social enterprise and social innovation community as a fabulous brainwave on behalf of government which is finally waking up to the benefits they deliver. But that’s not the whole story. What the social innovation community needs to ask ourselves, and our governments, is why the sudden interest and support, and in whose interest? There are two noteworthy lines of enquiry in answer to these questions. 

Money-making and self interest

Firstly it’s all about the money. Governments committed to neoliberal political economies have a small number of clear guiding principles – like small government and lower taxes for the wealthy so more money circulates for consumption and ‘trickles down’ through society to those who are poor.

Increasing privatisation of public services could be seen as governments outsourcing responsibility to deliver free public services

While conservative voters applaud this approach, others consider that the increasing privatisation of public services could be seen as governments outsourcing their responsibility to deliver free public services, in a scenario that costs the government less, and citizens more. The government is taking the funds citizens pay through their taxes, and instead of delivering free (or heavily subsidised) public services, is allocating a smaller amount of those funds to social enterprises or private companies who generally charge a ‘top up’ fee for delivery of the service.

The key question here is, who benefits from the saving the government makes from outsourcing delivering of public services? Are we really supporting a system that results in citizens topping up funding for the services they already pay the government to deliver through their taxes? Is this actually neoliberalism dressed up as social innovation?

Secondly, it's all about containment – the way in which those in power co-opt and adapt new ideas and discourses to serve their own needs, especially if the ‘innovations’ question the status quo, or affect the markets of businesses. It appears quite obvious that when the government (the mainstream) co-opts concepts such as social innovation and social enterprise, they suddenly become a whole lot less innovative and enterprising.

Social innovation and social entrepreneurship in their very nature are disruptive (another term that’s been co-opted and drained of meaning) and game-changing. They are at their best when they operate on the margins, enhancing and complementing existing social services and generating systemic change.

When social innovation and social enterprise are supported by government, they become mainstream. Social enterprises and social innovations should never replace public services and should never be constrained by a set of compliance criteria in a government contract. To put it simply, mainstreaming innovation robs it of its innovation, and for the status quo that’s a good outcome.


Dr Andrew Curtis and Tara Anderson are the co-founders and directors of the Dragonfly Collective – a social venture that connects and supports individuals and organisations working to tackle inequality in Australia. They are are currently participating in a programme at the University of Danube & the Centre for Social Innovation in Austria. They have written this three-part analysis looking into the reasons behind increased interest in social innovation based on this engagement and their range of other experiences in the UK and Australia.

Keep watching for the second part of this article coming soon.

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